I’m not in favor of generalizations, and especially not ‘little tricks’ that supposedly tell you so much about someone, like, “If she isn’t wearing her engagement ring she’s not serious about her engagement.” Or, you know, she works someplace where it’d be dangerous to wear, or it needs to be refitted, or she’s not the kind to show off, or she’s not so unbelievably vapid to think that a ring is necessary in any way (and especially not buying the horrendous bullshit about diamonds in the first place.) That said, there are definitely situations that can set off warning bells, at least, because the pattern of behavior is undeniable. And just this morning, I was reminded of another one: “Keep an open mind,” especially when used in the context of something curious or mysterious.
On the face, it certainly seems like sound advice – don’t be dismissing any possible explanations out-of-hand, and this is certainly what it’s always meant to imply. In practice, however, it is overwhelmingly used to justify someone’s desire for some state of affairs that has never come to pass. We’re talking supernatural and religious explanations/causes, and cryptids like the Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, and ghosts and auras and astrology and so on and so forth. “You don’t believe in the chupacabra?! Well, I’m going to keep an open mind!”
Michael Shermer, I think, coined the adage, “Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out,” which isn’t bad advice at all, but I still think it falls a little short – everyone is confident that they’re being perfectly intelligent and rational in their beliefs. I’m a little more specific: I don’t care about possibilities, I’m after probabilities, and what has the strongest evidence behind it. Because, in all honesty, I have considered, for instance, supernatural occurrences and the chance of a large hominid in the forests of the northwest North American continent – including whether we’ve actually established that such a thing could exist and how, and whether there’s a decent amount of supporting evidence, and how easy it is have multiple explanations for any given evidence, and the probabilities of those. Which is precisely why ‘Bigfoot’ falls to the bottom of my list of potential explanations: it scores abysmally bad against the rest.
Sometimes, it’s simply stupid. Let’s say that you’re hearing odd noises from a house, and “ghost” is one of those things that you’re considering with your ‘open mind.’ But if you haven’t proven some other explanation, there is no remaining ‘default’ option, or indeed any fixed list of things to consider, so settling on anything, or even thinking this constitutes ‘evidence’ in the first place, is corrupt in itself. And unfortunately, if we have not actually established the existence of ghosts or gods or Jersey Devils or whatnot, then there are no specific traits that can actually be tied to such, are there? Sure, plenty of people will tell you that ghosts appear in the period dress of their times and so on, but how does this even make sense? Are you telling me their clothes have a soul too? If someone says they saw a vague, undefined humanoid shape, can I tell them that it’s not a ghost, because ghosts have clothes and expressions? Or do we simply make up the rules as we go along, taking whatever someone says at face value and then attaching a label that’s supposed to apply to each and every story anyone cares to spout? Can I start a whole new set of criteria by telling people I saw a translucent being in the shape of an adding machine, which must indicate the ghost of an accountant? Hey, we already have more than a few accounts of ghost buses and trains because, you know, those must have unfinished business that prevents their final rest…
But okay, let’s jump way ahead and assume we have ‘enough evidence’ to claim that there’s such a thing as ghosts. What now? We’ve established, to some arbitrary standards, that ghosts exist – what are we going to do with this information? Interview them? Put them to work? Publish a paper on memory retention and development despite the lack of brain cells and functioning synapses? [I was talking about the ghosts, there, but hey…] Is there something that we can do with this information other than pat ourselves on the back and say, “I knew it!”? That’s the whole purpose of learning anything, right? Being able to use it? C’mon, I’m maintaining an open mind here.
Not done yet; what about considering that any given account, or indeed every last one of them, is simply a hoax? Or someone desperate for attention? Or bad vision, or bad mushrooms, or mental illness? Let’s keep an open mind here, and consider everything. Are we absolutely sure it’s not one of the forgotten gods? Are we absolutely sure it’s not a government conspiracy? Are we absolutely sure it’s not a glitch in the program that we inhabit (or a hidden level)? The next time someone tries to use this little ‘open mind’ admonition on you, have at it – hit them with everything you possibly can, overwhelm them with just how open bare, undefined, undeveloped possibilities can get. Be creative – we’ve just been urged to have no rules at all. And then, watch them hesitate, watch them splutter, watch them get defensive… because the only openness they were interested in, by a large margin, is just enough to let them come to a favored conclusion, and nothing more. Being open to the idea that they were completely mistaken is not on their list.